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What New York’s 26th District Special Election Tells Us (and What it Doesn’t)

Medicare concerns help Democrats win a GOP seat

Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul’s (D) victory in a western New York special House election on Tuesday night is certain to further roil an already-unpredictable national political landscape in advance of the 2012 election.

Even before Hochul’s win in the seat vacated by former Rep. Chris Lee (R), both national parties were in full-on spin mode.

See also: Obama’s deficit plan rejects GOP Medicare cuts.

Democrats claimed the race was an early referendum on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-approved budget plan — most notably the proposed changes to Medicare — while Republicans insisted that their side’s likely loss was the result of a ballot quirk that allowed wealthy businessman Jack Davis to siphon off votes from Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin.

But, spin aside, what did Hochul’s win really tell us about the political world going forward? We break that down below.

Medicare matters:

When the special election started, Medicare was a non-issue for most voters in the district. By the final Siena Research Institute poll, 21 percent said it was their top issue — a remarkable ascendance that shows the potential political peril for Republicans on the issue. While national Republicans will do everything they can to downplay the role Medicare played in the race, it’s hard to imagine that, without the Ryan budget to bash, Hochul would have gained such traction.

One source close to the Hochul campaign said that once she began attacking Corwin on Medicare, the Republican’s numbers went steadily downward while the Democrat’s numbers soared. One special election almost 18 months before the next general election does not a trend make, but it’s hard to imagine that House GOPers who voted for the Ryan budget didn’t wake up a little more nervous today than they did yesterday.

Candidates matter:

Ask anyone who spent any time in the 26th district over the last few months, and they will tell you that Hochul was the superior candidate. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact amid the roiling debate over how much Medicare mattered in the race, but that’s a mistake. Candidates always matter — particularly in special elections where there is far more media coverage than in a typical, regularly scheduled House race.

Corwin’s profile — she is extremely wealthy — didn’t fit in a district where the economy continues to struggle and even some of the Republicans who helped recruit her into the race acknowledged that she struggled to connect with voters.

Jack Davis mattered:

Davis, who had run three times for this seat before as a Democrat, wound up loaning his campaign more than $3 million and winning somewhere around 9 percent of the vote. That was, as Republicans quickly pointed out, more than the margin that Hochul defeated Corwin by. But assuming that every Davis voter would have pulled the lever — do people even do that anymore? — for Corwin is a mistake. Davis’s real importance in the race was that his early spending complicated Corwin’s ability to unite the conservatives in this district — this is one of four districts in New York that Arizona Sen. John McCain won in 2008 — behind her before the race truly engaged at the national level. That kept Hochul in the game, leaving her within striking distance to capi­tal­ize on Corwin’s Medicare misstep.

The 2010 election doesn’t matter:

Just six months after House Republicans won a whopping 63 House seats and, with them, the majority in the lower chamber, the New York special election makes clear that the governing dynamic of the last election is officially over. Republicans successfully ran against unified Democratic control in Washington in 2010, but Tuesday’s result proved the danger of being in charge for House Republicans. Whether or not you ascribe to the theory that what happened Tuesday night in New York will ultimately be predictive of what’s to come in November 2012, it’s hard to argue that voters’ motivations appear to have changed. And that’s a reality that both parties will have to grapple with over the next 17 months — with control of the Senate and maybe even the House in the balance.

Poll finds concern over debt limit: According to a new Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll, there’s more concern among Americans about raising the debt limit than not raising it.

Forty-eight percent of respondents say they are alarmed by the prospect that the debt could grow beyond its current limit of $14.3 trillion. Only 35 percent say they are more worried about the risk of default and economic destabilization if Congress does not raise the debt limit.

Americans are about evenly divided between those who say they understand the possible implications of not raising the debt limit very well or fairly well and those who do not, although only 25 percent of the public feels that they have heard a lot about the debate.

That means that plenty of people are still ripe for the picking as this issue heats up in Congress.

Appeal expedited in Nevada: The Nevada Supreme Court has granted Secretary of State Ross Miller’s (D) motion to expedite resolution of the conflict over the 2nd House district special election.

The state is appealing the decision by a circuit court that candidates should be picked by party committees. Miller had interpreted the law as calling for a free-for-all so-called “ballot royale,” with no party nominees.

Declarations of candidacy will be accepted starting today, even as it remains unknown whether those contenders will be allowed directly on to the ballot.

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